I sat in church earlier this month waiting for my friend to preach. As I heard the reading, the Parable of the Talents, I smiled, leaned toward my right, and whispered to her husband: “Here comes a sermon about the Prosperity Gospel.” I was joking, of course. I knew that she would do something creative with this challenging story. What I didn’t know is that it would bring me close to tears. — MHP
Sermon by Rev. Kate Braestrup
The Parable of the Talents — sometimes translated as “Bags of Gold” — is one of the thorny passages in the Bible, seldom preached upon by cherry-pickers, but I am somehow drawn to thorns, so I decided to offer it to you today.
In the story, the Master is headed off on a long trip to a faraway land…and before he departs he needs to put his affairs in order. He brings his servants together and delivers unto them his wealth This isn’t chump change either; even a single “talent” was a whole lot of money, ten thousand denarii, while five talents was a small fortune.
The idea of giving all my money to my servants before leaving town seems a strangely trusting thing to do, but Jesus’ listeners would’ve recognized this as normal. It was common for rich men in the ancient Near East to hand over the administration of their property to their servants, and to expect them not only to maintain and protect it but, where possible, to improve or increase its value. While the servants would not have had rights to the proceeds, the expectation (naturally enough) was that the master would be pleased and perhaps inclined to tip generously if, upon his return, the servants had turned a profit.
Notice that in their day, as in ours, wealth was understood not as a static single pie that could only be divided into bigger or smaller slices, but rather as a yeasty thing that could grow and expand or dwindle and die, depending on the nurture it was given.
As usual with Jesus’ parables, while the story has recognizable elements, it is also a little unsettling. Why was the Master so angry with the guy who buried his share in the field — so angry that he cast him into outer darkness, there to wail and gnash? Burying was not an outrageous thing to do with valuable things; it was a common way of safeguarding them in troubled times.
And why not give all three servants the same amount to begin with? To divide the money “according to their abilities” seems, you know, discriminatory. Why hurt one guy’s feelings and lower his self-esteem… even if that one talent represents beaucoup bucks
Maybe Jesus’ followers wondered this, too. Or maybe these are modern questions, born of a time in which we luxuriously squabble not about the vast difference between feast and famine, but rather about the micro gap that lies between “enough” and “way more than enough.”
How frequently we are now enjoined to regard such inequalities as the result of “privilege,” white, male, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered and so on, the lack of which must be noted and named as an unjust, crippling handicap.
As President Lyndon Johnson put it back in 1965, when rolling out his vision of a Great Society, “you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete!”
A race was also the metaphor employed by the makers of a recent video that has gone viral on YouTube, one that offers us a simple, graphic explanation of the concept of “white privilege.”
A multi-colored bunch of teenagers clad in shorts and sneakers are lined up on the edge of a field, laughing and chatting together and getting ready to run a race.
The group’s leader calls for their attention. He holds up a hundred dollar bill. This, he says, is the prize for the winner of the race. The teenagers nudge each other and prepare to dash. Not so fast! the leader tells them.
I’m going to make a series of statements. If a statement applies to you, I want you to take two big steps forward. Got it?
Your parents are married.
You have a father figure in the home.
You had access to private education.
You had access to tutoring.
You’ve never had to worry about your cell phone being cut off.
You never had to help your parents pay the bills.
Other than through your athletic ability, your college is paid for.
You have never wondered about where your next meal was coming from.
We, the audience, watch as some of the kids take giant steps forward and others stay behind, at or near the starting line. The camera shows us, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that the ones “falling behind” are teens of color. Clearly, this video was not made in Maine. But never mind.
When the teens are satisfactorily divided, the leader cries “You see? It’s not a fair race!” All the things I mentioned were things that were handed to you, they weren’t things you earned for yourself. These were what gave you a head start in the race for this hundred dollar bill.
The leader falters a bit on the punch line:
So you should…you know…go ahead and run your race but pay attention to the unfairness…
He could have quoted LBJ again:
We seek not just…. equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result….
The background music swells and soars. We are given a God’s eye view of the field, with a swarm of unequalized, ant-sized teenagers racing across it. We’re too far away to notice whether the kids who received the athletic scholarships discounted by the leader actually managed to beat the kids with dads and tutors…but never mind: Neither they nor we are offered a solution to the hideous unfairness of a limited and stingy world. Rather, we’ve learned what matters: that the right response to inequality as a fact and inequality as a result is to feel either smugly guilty or grimly resentful, depending.
Jesus’ parable offers very different lessons.
For one thing, life is not a race for a single prize.
To the extent that life is a race at all (an analogy with limited explanatory value in this non-athlete’s opinion) there are “prizes” for everyone who is willing to run. Maybe we should make a new YouTube video to present to our kids, one in which the metaphor is a 5k Fun Run across a field littered with hundred dollar bills and also with jewels, flowers, friends, interesting things to study and ponder, gorgeous views, songs, poems, cupcakes and embraces?
Or, if we are feeling more rational than whimsical, we could coolly observe that none of the “privileges” listed by the leader in the video are handed down as immutable laws from some unkind, unjust “society.” All — the whole list — are the result of choices made by the teenaged runners’ parents.
It is parents who decide to get and remain married, parents who discipline their own impulses and sacrifice their own pleasures so as to pay the bills, put food on the table and arrange the best possible education for their offspring.
The moral of the YouTube video didn’t have to be “some of you have been gypped and now you’re doomed.” It could have been: “You have choices and your choices matter, to you and to your children. So how will you choose to invest your talents? What sort of parents will you choose to be?”
You know, one of the reasons I love the Bible more than I love YouTube is that there aren’t a whole lot of either teenagers or athletic events in this book. In the parable Jesus offered, the characters are unequal but everyone is a grown up (and nobody is buff, or sweaty) and they all have talents.
The talents are a metaphor for…well, talents, I suppose, though the pun only works in English; those gifts, abilities, attitudes and attributes that have been given to us to work at, practice and expand.
It is easier to bury what God has given us to use.
It is easier to stand resentfully at the starting line, not bothering to run. After all, if you don’t try, you can’t fail.
And besides, the Master is hard, his expectations are unfair, the talents are heavy and he has entrusted me with too much responsibility.
Mother Theresa once said: “I know that God won’t give me more than I can handle. But sometimes I wish God didn’t trust me quite so much.”
Mother Theresa—-bless her—-struggled a bit with the God she served so devotedly. But she didn’t bury her talents. Fluent in five languages, trained as a teacher and missionary, energetic, dogmatic and incredibly stubborn, she ministered to lepers, refugees, unwed mothers and abandoned children, and the seeds sprouted and the talents bloomed, the metaphors mixed and the harvest multiplied.
Speaking of blooms: The other day, I had the pleasure of performing a wedding for a young man who began life, literally, in a gutter. He was born and abandoned on the street in Calcutta, India.
Weighing no more than three pounds, this tiny infant spent his first dark night out in the open, lying on the filthy street before someone found him. That person brought him to Mother Theresa’s Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart. Fed and nurtured, by such miracles, he survived. At six months of age, he was adopted by, of all things, an American State Trooper and his wife. Weighing just over five pounds when he arrived in the United States, the baby thrived and grew and waxed strong right here in Maine.
It occurs to me to wonder how the leader in that YouTube video might count the privileges our unfair “society” has bestowed upon that baby boy. How many giant steps forward from the starting line should he take?
Plenty of steps! After all, his adoptive parents were married. His father was present in the household and devoted. They saw to his nourishment and education. He never had to worry about his cell phone being cut off.
He got all of what the YouTube video chose to label as “white privileges,” though he isn’t white.
We can call them privileges. Or, we can think of the “talents” God entrusted to his servants — in this case: the talents of Mother Theresa, of the sisters of the Nirmala Shishu Bhavhan, of the stranger who stopped to pluck a tiny baby from the gutter, of the Maine man and woman who reached across the world to bring that skinny little brown boy home. He did not sow, but he sure did reap. And God’s giving knows no ending; love’s investment has paid dividends: The baby is now a police officer, serving his community. As of two weeks ago, he is married to his sweetheart and happily planning a family.
Shall we call him privileged? Talented?
Maybe we can call him what he calls himself: Blessed.
A privilege is something to preen or feel uselessly guilty about. To be blessed is to be grateful, and inspired to be a blessing in your turn.
I like the pun that English places at the center of this morning’s parable, the one that expands the metaphor. No matter how many talents, gifts of love and friendship, gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves, bits of sheer good fortune that you do or do not begin with, God’s love is a firm foundation, a good place to start. Love is more than enough. Don’t fearfully horde it, don’t bury the love entrusted to you, but invest that gracious gift in your own giving, such that all things now living shall reap more blessings, and more.
Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup